By Angela Miyuki Mackintosh
FEATHERS FROM A THOUSAND LI AWAY
A long time ago, there was a little girl who worshipped her mother, like any little girl at the age of ten. Then when this little girl turned twelve and her mother committed suicide, she was lost, holding a box of letters in Kanji, pictures and paintings and sea pearls from her mother's past. Things that were a mystery to her, because of her American upbringing.
As time went by, this little girl, now growing into a young woman, buried her past to fit in with her friends, who were her closest family. This little girl, turned young woman, had become a 'ghost' without the love of her mother. She was drowning in a black sea of solitude and remorse; for she could not understand her inherent culture, or her past. All she knew was Coke vs. Pepsi, Star Wars, and John Hughes films-not that there's anything wrong with that...
When she was a senior in high school, there was a book: The Joy Luck Club. With eyes open, this young woman, trapped within a little girl’s mind, read this book and deeply related. Never before had anyone she’d come in contact with expressed the feelings that were before her on paper. This magical book that floated like a feather from a thousand Li away, brought this young woman salvation and saved her from drowning.
Without this book, who knows where I would’ve ended up.
THE TWENTY-SIX MALIGNANT GATES
It was the morning after our last issue went live. It was November 2nd and I was sound asleep—like a racehorse after his last heat that he’d been training a month for—and I was determined to get some shut-eye. That’s how it is in the online publishing biz... there’s no casual three-month lead-time to finish your next issue, so, it’s go-go-go, and then hopefully, snore-snore-snore. But this morning I knew something was different. For one thing, the phone rang way too early for it to be California time; it had to be New York.
Charlotte Powell, a publicist from Random House, called saying that we’d be able to interview Amy Tan that very day! Speaking with her was fantastic. She provided us with all the details we needed in order to make the interview happen. Now, we needed to fly like the wind.
With recorders, miscellaneous papers, and scribbled notes, we burned rubber up into the I.E. (Inland Empire) and found our way to The DoubleTree Hotel where Amy was staying. During the drive, I remembered how and why I first discovered The Joy Luck Club, and how meaningful this meeting would be to me. A bit of nervousness set in as I stepped into the crowded lobby and spoke to the concierge. A convention must’ve been going on, since pantsuits and skirts swished around us in various shades of grey, black and brown.
We were admiring the scenery when the concierge spoke, “Amy Tan will see you in her hotel room.” Beryl and I shot each other a strange look; we really didn’t think that she’d ask us to come to her hotel room, but without a word, we made our way out into the courtyard and into the gold elevator.
Amy Tan met us at the door with a big smile and a handshake, a long, black crinkly dress flowing from her slight frame. As we settled down into a comfortable couch, we were greeted by Amy’s adorable little canine companion (see pictures), and right away, I felt compelled to tell her how honored I was to meet her. It was like a dream materializing right before my eyes. The past obstacles faded into the background as I spoke with Amy, the gracious and talented woman behind the book—the one who saved me from drowning.
WOW: I listened to an interview you'd done on NPR, where you talked about the hardships you went through while writing, Saving Fish from Drowning. Specifically, your mother's death and your discovery that you had Lyme disease... how did this effect your writing?
Amy: The two are very different, but it just so happened that they occurred around the same time. I thought the early symptoms of Lyme were from the stress of taking care of my mother at the very end of her life. The book came with this sadness that she wasn't a part of my life, and also perhaps, not a part of my book, but then she did become a huge part of the book. I heard her, and whether she actually said it or I just imagined her saying it, she said, "I can still tell the stories and I don't have to be the mother, I can be the tour guide."
Now, as I was trying to develop the story, I was getting sicker, and sicker, and sicker. I couldn't write after a while, I couldn't concentrate, and I became very anxious. I couldn't leave the house, and I couldn't be in a hotel room without feeling that something terrible was going to happen. It was a very dark period of my life.
I came to realize that this is what people go through when they're ill. They're faced with a lot of uncertainty, don't know what's going on and when it's going to end, whether they're going to come out better or worse. I have a real empathy toward people with chronic illnesses. I was somebody who never got sick, never had the flu or a cold in fifteen years. So, suddenly I had what people would call chronic fatigue. I was tired all the time and felt like I was on the brink of having the flu. The worst part was not being able to think or remember.
When I came out of that and was diagnosed, I was relieved because now I could be treated...
WOW: And it was something that you could put a name to.
Amy: Right. I think people need that, they need to know what it is that's in their body. They need to visualize it. It made me appreciate my mother, because she was always trying to track down the cause of things.
Someone recently said to me, "You've been on a grueling tour." I was about to say, yes, I hardly am home, but I told myself that I'm never going to complain because... I can do it. I have the energy to do it. It may be exhausting in some ways, but I'm grateful I can do it. It used to be that if I did anything for more than an hour, I'd pay for it, and be sick for three days. Now I can go for twenty-four hours, I can get three hours of sleep and keep going.
WOW: Really! Is it just getting better?
Amy: I consider myself 120% better, although I'm still not cured. I don't know if I ever will be, but I'm managing the disease. I came out of it though with a couple of gains. I found out I have neuropathy in my feet, which isn't terrible because I don't have pain...and I have seizures, which I have to manage as well.
WOW: (We both gasped, but were amazed in Amy's apparent strength. To be able to accomplish everything she had, and at the same time, having to deal with Lyme disease and these complications...all with a positive outlook.)
Amy: I never knew I was having the seizures until one day my driver said, "Oh, you look better this week." And I said, "Compared to what?" Then he told me that last week I wasn't able to talk and I was really spacey.
Then there were certain things that I just had no memory of. Someone said to me, "I saw you on TV this morning." And I told her that they tape those things in advance, but she said, "No, it was live... you were on the news." So I asked my husband if I was on the news this morning and he said yes. "Did I sound coherent?" I asked. And he said I sounded fine.
I guess when you have a seizure it wipes out that part of your memory. I had a little memory of before the interview, and a little bit after, but then there's this blank spot of a couple of hours.
WOW: At least you could see what you were doing on the news!
Amy: I never watch myself, or read interviews... I have a rule about not reading about myself.
WOW: Because it's hard...
Amy: It's just not healthy. I'm happy to do things like this, but to read about myself, it's a little odd.
WOW: Knowing oneself yields personal freedom, and I admire that. You have a wonderful sense of self.
Amy: You can never be yourself if you have to please others. Fortunately, I learned that when I was a teenager. It's one of those lessons you learn in different ways, all of your life. As a writer, it's dangerous, and I've seen some other writers be influenced. Whether or not we recognize it, we're all searching for meaning in our lives. So if you take somebody else's meaning, you've lost a part of your life.
WOW: I read that when you were going to your writing group and writing about traditional American 'WASP' characters, you thought, why am I doing this? Then you started writing about what you know, and it became more personal.
Amy: I went to my first writers workshop in 1985, and I'm really glad I did, because I wasn't sure I had what it would take to keep going. I was in love with writing and I figured I'd do it for the rest of my life. For example, I hated to play the piano when I was a kid, and then later on I loved it. But what I recognized later was that I didn't have any kind of special talent. I had fifteen years of classical piano and that was great, and I was happy to have that background, but I'd never be extraordinary in that way and be able to perform, let's say, beyond family.
Going to the workshop didn't confirm that I had any special talent, but it confirmed that I could learn to do this as a craft, and that learning that in itself was completely fulfilling. This is going back to that notion of finding meaning in your life... it was the process that I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It could've been that I didn't have any special talent to be published, but that was beside the point, it didn't really matter. I loved talking about fiction with other writers, and the more we talked about things, the more excited I got. As we critiqued one another's work, I felt I was able to see my own work at another level. I also recognized that everyone has a different opinion. Somebody could say that they loved something about your work, and somebody else could say the exact opposite.
I remember some of the comments kept coming back to the same thing. "I want to know more about what the character is wearing."
(Me & Amy)
WOW: (laughs) So true!
Amy: This is from someone who always talks about appearances and what characters are wearing. Someone else in the group doesn't like dialogue. Another wants things tied up, or psychologically explained, while another wants things very spare.
Everybody had a different opinion and it was good to hear their opinions. Part of the process was to discover your own voice in the midst of all this noise, the qualities of your own voice. Some people find that very painful, and at times it was, but for the most part, I really liked it.
WOW: Was it hard to dissect the good advice?
Amy: I learned after awhile that certain people in the group had patterns. I wrote down everybody's notes to see if something clicked, because it's a barrage at first, and then later on you can sit down and dissect it in relation to your writing. It's not that I would follow everything people were saying, but if someone said that it was 'boring' or 'confusing,' I'd think, well, maybe I should eliminate it, or it's going off in the wrong direction. I could look at the work from afar and really analyze it. For at some point, we had to justify what was there.
Molly Giles, who was our leader, was 90% or more on target. She would make a remark that would resonate with me, and I'd work on it. Molly read my work right from the beginning-my very first stories submitted to the workshop. She's read all of my books and provided comments on them. She made a lot of comments on my first book because she was my workshop leader. She's my editor today.
The editor I had at Putnam was famous for being involved with your complete life, and knowing that your work was who you were as a person. She was wonderful in that sense and she became a really close friend. She was like a second mother, and then she died...
The publisher was trying to find another editor for me, and I knew that I was never going to find someone like Faith again. It almost seemed disloyal... because Faith was that type of person that never wanted me to have anyone else, but she knew that I'd always had Molly in my corner. So, I asked if I could have Molly as my editor, and she's great. She doesn't try and take over my stories. Some people want to put their hands in your stories, so they can say point to something and say they helped with it. But, if someone is secure enough not to put their handprint on something, then they can actually help you in areas that you want help and not claim it as their own.
WOW: It's more of an encouragement and a support...
Amy: With Molly, I have freedom to do work and not worry about her saying that it's terrible... because Molly has seen all of my work, and she knows that in my first attempts, I'm just trying things out and that I'm capable of changing things completely. So she's never concerned if she sees something that's going in the wrong direction...she'll pick the thing that she likes about it and say, "I like this part of the voice," or, "This part is too crabby..."
WOW: Do you experiment a lot when you're starting out?
Amy: I experiment with voice. What the voice knows and what the voice can talk about. To me, the beginning of the story is the hardest part. I have to get far enough into the story, say fifty pages, to know what the beginning should be. Wherever I begin, it's going to change. Sometimes I write the beginning when I get to the end of the book. Molly knows that about me.
WOW: You have such a following that everybody sort of expects you to write a mother-daughter story, but you're a creative writer, a gifted writer, who can write anything and go into different areas...
Amy: Well, my reasons for going into a different area, is not so much that I can go into a different area, but more about what interests me at the time and what's happening in my life. It goes back to meaning. My mother died. My mother is now nowhere or everywhere. She's freed from being a mother and she can be anything, and she's a tour guide. A tour guide takes you places you've never been before. A tour guide helps point out what you should see or taste. My mother loved to travel and was perfect as a tour guide, so she became the dead tour guide in this book. And in that sense, it is a mother-daughter story to me. It's never going to be a mother-daughter story to anyone else. But, it's my mother-daughter story. My mother talking about things in the way she would've talked about them... her critical nature, her biases, and her regrets... all those things about her.
WOW: You know, there's times when we write about loved ones who've passed, pulling things from here or there, and most of the time you look back and don't get the entire picture. The things that would've driven you crazy day to day, seem to be accepted and kind of glazed over. But you have a pure, all encompassing love... you say, you're who you are, and I love you...
Amy: It's hard though, when someone has died and you use them in a character... it's hard not to idealize them, and that would be a fault in fiction. I've never really written about my father. For one thing, he died when I was young and I still idealize him. But my mother, I lived with her for so long and I've already written about her and about things that were less than perfect, but my mother loved it! She was so honest about everything that she thought it was great. I was writing about these things, difficult things, terrible things. I've always had that freedom that I didn't have to hide, and I sense that now.
"Whether or not
we recognize it,
we're all searching
in our lives.
So if you
you've lost a part
of your life."
(Beryl & Amy)
WOW: That's wonderful that you had that freedom from the start. Do you remember the moment when you first realized that you had a bestseller?
Amy: Let's see... the book came out on March 22, and probably hit the bestseller list about four weeks later...I'm not sure. I know that it was a bestseller by the time it was June 4 th , because many people asked me to comment on what happened at Tienamen Square on June 4 th , 1989. When it happened, it was unnerving because I don't think anyone, but maybe Sandy will now say that she knew it would be a bestseller, but I really don't think that there was anyone who thought that it would do better than your average collection of short stories. I kept thinking that it was a fluke and it would stop. I was telling my husband that the average shelf life of a book was six weeks, and it would be over... and it just kept going and going... it was nerve-wracking! It wasn't until October that I recognized that it was not going away, and that I'd probably be able to write fiction for the rest of my life if I wanted to. So, I was in denial.
I have this side of me that's prone to be a realist because of what happened in my family. My mother hoping so much for some kind of miracle, and it not happening, and my needing to be realistic about things. I'm not going to cling to false hopes. I'm not going to shoot for the moon. I'm not going to do what my mother did and be destroyed by tragedy. So, I had to play the realist.
WOW: But Sandy (Amy's agent) seemed pretty sure of your success. Wasn't she very persistent?
Amy: She was. She was very sure that she wanted to be my agent, but I said, you know I'm not a fiction writer, I only have this one story. I also was working as a business writer and I thought that she wanted to take money from that work, but she said, "No, I only want to sell your fiction, and you'd only pay if I sold something." I thought, oh well, you're going to work for nothing!
WOW: (laughs) That doesn't happen anymore! These days getting an agent seems as hard as getting published...but Sandy had a good eye. In interviewing agents, we've learned that a lot of them have a real passion for what they do, and Sandy is one of them.
Amy: I think all agents need to have a love of literature, and with Sandy, she has that love. She has very good taste and is a fighter in business. It's great that she's that way because I don't have to worry about anything. She's going to take care of it and I don't need to stay on top of any of the business. It's great to find someone you trust, because she does things that I could never do, things that I find so gut wrenching. There are aspects to the business side of writing that have to do with being pragmatic, with personal values. Sandy knows what kind of person I am and she takes that into consideration when she makes a business decision.
WOW: How did the whole thing with making the movie The Joy Luck Club come about? Did Sandy go out and secure that for you?
Amy: You know, I think these things happen in the Xerox department of publishing houses.
Amy: They get these manuscripts and somebody makes copies and they send them out to people in Hollywood. Then you start hearing from people even before a book comes out. So I met with somebody from Oliver Stone's office, long before the book ever came out and they were just stories... She got it when no one was supposed to see it, only my editor and my agent.
WOW: That's amazing!
Amy: When something hits the bestseller list then everybody reads it and they start finding out who to contact. So, I had a lot of offers, hoping that this option money would tempt me, but I had a good lesson when I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. There were a couple of sessions by people who had their books turned into movies, and one of them was a wonderful writer who'd sold his book, optioned his book, and they turned it into a terrible movie. He felt that it ruined his career and he wasted two and a half years of his life. So, I thought to myself, do not ever let that happen to you.
But when I heard that Wayne Wang was possibly interested, I met with him. I trusted him because I loved his movies, and I knew that whatever he did, he wasn't going to do these horrible depictions of Chinese people. Then we heard that the screenwriter Ron Bass wanted to be involved, and essentially, we got hoodwinked. Ron was told that Wayne and I really wanted to work with him, and we were told that Ron really wanted to work with us. So we ended up meeting each other on this blind date - both sides under the assumption that we wanted to work with each other. He'd outlined the whole thing and he knew exactly how it should be done...it was amazing. It wasn't until really much, much later, that we'd found out we'd been set up!
We were doing interviews and they said, "Well, how was it that you got together?" And we said, "Ron really wanted to work with us," and Ron said, "Wait a minute, I heard you really wanted to work with me!"
Amy: I wasn't going to work on the movie, but they kept insisting that I be a part of it. I told them that I'd never really been that enamored with watching movies, I enjoy them, but I'm not a movie buff. I have never been that interested in how Hollywood works, but they said the magic word at one point. Ron said, "I really think that you'd learn something creatively that will really help you in the other things that you'll do." I said, "What do you mean?" As he talked about various aspects of the process, I realized that that would be reason enough to do it, because if it folded, it would've still been worth it. I just had to know what I was going to get out of it, so I approached it that way, and they were fun to work with. They were good people, smart people and my intuitions were right.
WOW: Do you still work on your children's show (Sagwa) on PBS?
Amy: No. They did 81 episodes and they've never come back for more episodes. That's because with children's programming they show the same things over and over and over, and the kids never get tired of it. The kids grow up and their siblings will watch it, and then they grow up. So they really never need to get new episodes. You know that was started on September 2001...
WOW: That's been coming up lately... so many things happened then... is that when you first decided to sign the contract?
Amy: No, that was the launch. I was going to do all the interviews, and I was at the CNN headquarters in New York, about to go on. I had the earpiece in, and I was sitting on the stool, one minute to live, and suddenly all these people were yelling, screaming, and cursing. Sometimes you see things on TV and you hear people in the background talking because it's live, but these people were yelling, and I thought, this is going to be picked up! And they were using profanity! Then someone yelled, "We've got live feed," and the monitor went from these pregnant women in bathing suits to a building on fire. And I've done enough TV interviews on soft news to know that with any breaking news, you're out.
That's when I noticed then that the building had no background, just sky. Then I realized what the building was, and someone yelled, "We have a witness. It was a commercial jet." And we're watching and watching, and I'm in the newsroom, then the second one hit. Everyone's talking... and it's world war III... and I'm thinking, it's the end of the world. People where doing their jobs the way that they're supposed to be doing them, but it was off kilter, and there was a level of insanity about it. This woman came up to me, after the second plane hit, and calmly said, "We're sorry, we're going to have to reschedule." And I just looked at her and thought, but we're all going to die, there's no need to reschedule... there's no rescheduling this!
WOW: (laughs) Really!
Amy: I thought, Honey, it's over. No replay.
WOW: Whoa, what a place to be...
QUEEN MOTHER OF THE WESTERN SKIES
We take turns sitting on the couch as the digital camera flashes a bright white light. We pass around the viewfinder, peering into the tiny screen, smiling and quiet, at the present memory captured. Looking at the picture of Amy and me, reminds me of my mother in a way, and I can see my half Japanese side quite clearly. It's a side that I'll always have with me, whether far away in the past, or near to my heart. Just as I'll have this moment spent with Amy Tan, the woman behind the book, the new friend and wise mother, the kind heart and the realist, and the gifted writer who can save a young girl through the power of words...
Thank you Amy, it was all and more than I expected.
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